‘Tis better to give than to receive, unless you’re Cardinals RB David Johnson

Sep 23, 2016, 6:00 AM | Updated: 4:02 pm
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)...
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

TEMPE, Ariz. – Truth be told, David Johnson is a wide receiver first and running back second; at least that’s where the Arizona Cardinals second-year star thought his career was headed, once upon a time.

“I actually played receiver a little bit in high school,” he said.

It was more than just a little bit.

At Clinton High School in Iowa, Johnson graduated as the school’s all-time leader in career receptions and receiving yards.

“I was getting recruited to play receiver in college,” he added, “so I was already getting used to that feeling of catching the ball, tucking it, running routes and stuff. I’m glad I’m able to do it here.”

Through two games, Johnson is the Cardinals’ second-leading receiver in both catches (7) and yards (141), while being targeted 11 times. Only 13-year veteran and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald has better numbers.

Johnson, however, does top Fitzgerald in average yards per catch (20.1 to 11.6) and his 58-yard third-quarter reception against Tampa Bay is the team’s longest play from scrimmage this season.

Johnson has accomplished all of the above while still remaining the Cardinals’ No. 1 option at running back.

“He’s one of those rare guys that can do both,” Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan said, speaking to Arizona reporters on a conference call.

That Johnson can catch the football out of the backfield is not a surprise. After high school, Johnson kept up his dual-threat ability at Northern Iowa, where he totaled 141 receptions for 1,734 yards and 14 touchdowns in addition to leading the team in rushing in each of his final three seasons.

That Johnson’s receiving skills are so prevalent now in the NFL also may not be a surprise.

“You can talk to him just like he’s a receiver when you talk about setting up routes and what I’m doing with my eyes to get the ball to you here in this spot. He understands it. He’s very cerebral,” said quarterback Carson Palmer, who moved into 16th place on the all-time passing yardage list on that 58-yard throw to Johnson. “He knows what’s going on at every position around him, which is rare for a receiver, let alone rare for a running back in a receiver’s spot. It is like talking to a receiver when you talk conceptually to him about things.”

Against Tampa Bay, Johnson finished with a career-high 98 receiving yards. That prompted Fitzgerald to joke with reporters, “We don’t want him to get too comfortable in the passing game.”

It’s a comment Fitzgerald, who is always aware of his targets, has made a few times to Johnson.

“He comes to me and tells me, get us to the 20-yard line and he’ll get the touchdown,” Johnson said, smiling, before adding, “Fitz is a great player to watch and a great person to learn from in how to catch the ball. I don’t think anyone can catch as good as him. Just to be able to watch him throughout practice, throughout last year as a rookie and stuff is amazing.”

Whether running routes out of the backfield or lining up in the slot, the latter of which is a new wrinkle to the offense this year, Johnson’s pass-catching ability only makes the Cardinals offense more dynamic and more difficult for opposing teams to defend.

In other words, not bad for a 6-foot-2, 224 pound running back who slipped to the third round, the 86th overall selection, in the 2015 NFL Draft.

“He can beat you in the run game. He can beat you in the pass game,” Fitzgerald said. “When you have guys that are in their second year that are taking onus like him, I mean, you think your franchise is in pretty good shape.”

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‘Tis better to give than to receive, unless you’re Cardinals RB David Johnson